Subtractive Mixing for a Cleaner Mix

Subtractive Mixing for a Cleaner Mix: Part 1

August 10, 2017 8 Comments

The engineer and I had just spent several hours balancing rhythm tracks but the bass guitar was still not out front enough. I asked for more bass, but he turned to me and said, "That's as loud as we can get it." He reached up and hit the solo button on the mixer for the bass channel and pointed to the meters. Sure enough, all on its own the bass guitar was right on the verge of overdriving the board. But when those other instruments were turned back on you couldn't hear it. It was the first time I'd ever seen a visual demonstration of the limits of ever-increasing volume in the mix. The bass was as loud as we could get it without distortion, but the other instruments were masking the sound. And I had just learned a lesson that was useful far beyond the recording studio.


Subtractive Mixing - The Basics

Start with the understanding that there is only a limited amount of available space in the mix. As you add instruments or increase their volume you are using up that space and it won't be available for the rest of the mix. Once two or more instruments are competing for the same space you need to prioritize one over the other, or try to move them out of one another's way. The basic concept of Subtractive Mixing is to identify the frequency ranges each of the tracks "lives in" and then group the tracks into frequency "families" which must live well together, then carefully balance all the tracks in each range to achieve harmony between them.

Creating a Nominal Reference Point

Set your primary rhythm tracks at nominal to begin the process. These will usually be kick and snare in most pop music. You'll need to make an educated guess as to the relative volume balance and EQ of each primary rhythm track. Because these tracks are likely to be ones you'll want to be prominent in the final mix, they make a good gauge of how close you are to running out of space. If the kick goes away or the snare looses authority you've reached the limit. Begin adding your rhythm section one instrument at a time with the objective of achieving a mix where you can hear everything, and be stingy with volume. As soon as the track sits in the mix, stop and leave the level there. While adding instruments, notice which family of instruments have the same frequency range. These are the instruments we will be balancing later to get them to behave well together. Pay special attention to the way that the other instruments in the same family can affect each other's tone as well. For example, too much bass can bury your kick and take the crunch away from your guitars. The reason this happens is because those instruments are sharing some of the exact same frequencies and your ear naturally picks out the loudest instrument at each frequency. Try experimenting by raising and lowering the levels while noticing how it affects the sound of the tracks, and taking note of which parts you want to make a priority and which conflicts you need to resolve.

Use Subtractive Mixing to Unmask the Hidden Part

When you notice a track is getting buried in the mix, avoid simply turning it up because this disrupts the balance you've worked so hard to achieve. Instead start by lowering (or subtracting) the level from one or more of the other tracks in that family. Sometimes all you need to do is lower one instrument to make several others sound much better. But there are limits so you must keep your expectations reasonable. Keep track of your original starting point and remember to add back anything that didn't make space for the part you want to highlight. If the adjustment you made didn't help, put it back the way it was. Once you have got the families of tracks working well together, you can start the same process mixing them into a final mix.

Taking it the Rest of the Way

But what if the tracks won't work together no matter what I do? Can I move them to a different range? Absolutely! In Part 2 of this series where we will talk about applying the same principle to EQ adjustments in order to move tracks laterally out of each other's way without lowering the level. We'll also talk about how to use these concepts to master mixing from the backline without instruments in the PA system. Try experimenting with different levels in each group and listening for the ways those changes also affect the tone of your instruments. Listening as you balance the tracks will help you notice the crucial aspects of each track, and you will be better equipped to make adjustments without losing them.

Have you ever tried Subtractive Mixing? What benefits did you notice? Let us know in the comments below.



8 Responses

Rich quinn
Rich quinn

August 11, 2017

Love your articles and tips on setting up your rig and getting the most out of your recording mix! Doing home recording on an old teac tasam 424, it has so many limitations as compared to a full sized board that you learn early on,by experimenting, every trick in the book, to get a good recording. Ping ponging, sound subtracting, e q , balancing, this was a good practicing experience which these methods are applicatable to bigger board as you grow. Keep up the good work carvin, and keep those articles coming! Richie

Shawn
Shawn

August 10, 2017

Thanks for this article.
Keep ’em coming!

Thomas Garguilo
Thomas Garguilo

August 10, 2017

I have used this subtractive method many times in my studio. I do find it works quite well in maintaining a cleaner mix. I will use this method all the way to the end. Decreasing levels instead of increasing And then try to get the hottest mix when going to master. I enjoyed this article and I’m looking forward to more inside info…. Thanks..

Randolph
Randolph

August 10, 2017

okay, I’m listening ………

………. (looking forward 2 part 2).

Phil Hartley
Phil Hartley

August 10, 2017

Yes, and I do subtractive eq as well. Using less eq on each instrument. Finding the natural eq setting for each instrument. Cutting the frequencies that bleed into another instrument. Those are the un-nessessary frequencies. Less is more in the mix.

Greg Frye
Greg Frye

August 10, 2017

I have used subtractive mixing in live venues for decades. All too often, everyone wants everything (mainly themselves) out front in the house mix. Monitoring mixes are more of the same with the result being a stage volume that competes with the house mix. For monitor mixes, I ask what do you need and then what else would you like. By being conservative and subtracting what is not needed, house and monitor mixes live together better and provide a great sound for band and audience.

Michael Lawrence
Michael Lawrence

August 10, 2017

Wisdom! It relates to a basic life rule, all things in moderation. Took me a long to learn this (in recording as well as life).

John Arevalo
John Arevalo

August 10, 2017

I don’t think there’s anything I haven’t tried in getting the right mix, including subtractive mixing.
It’s just common logic to back things off if something else is getting buried.

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